Talking to Your Kids About Race-Based Bullying

Modern Grace is a monthly column for Best of Korea by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

One of my earliest memories of Americans after moving to New Jersey as a six-year-old was hearing a particularly brash peer announce, “My parents will SUE YOU!” whenever she was displeased about something. Keep in mind this was a 1980s working-class neighborhood. I doubt this little girl’s family had an attorney on call, primed to litigate the latest kindergarten skirmish. But the threat was powerful and effective. I was terrified that I might somehow trigger her wrath. 

Thirty-five years later, I find this same scorched earth attitude in the comment section of parenting boards whenever someone mentions bullying. “Oh if that happened to my kid, you’d have to pick me up from jail,” someone will write. These comments tend to get a lot of thumbs up and laughing face emojis. This is America, where casual threats of violence carry a certain positive currency. 

This is America but I was raised by Korean parents who came of age during the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship. They were less about suing people who displeased me and more about wondering what I might have done to draw negative attention. If I complained that someone had called me a derogatory name, they might suggest we forgive and pray for them. Definitely no one was going to jail to avenge my prickled thin skin. For many immigrants and children of immigrants who have been conditioned to keep our heads down and out of trouble, it may feel tempting to explain away a racist encounter or “rise above” in the interest of keeping the peace. 

Neither of these responses—mama bear bellicosity or immigrant shame/fear-based silence—would be considered best practice to address bullying today, especially race-based bullying which may be classified as a hate incident or crime.

1. Know Your Rights

Instead, experts agree you should take quick, consistent action by following the anti-bullying protocols of your school, which are protected by state and federal laws. (This policy may be called the HIB Policy: Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying.) Find your state’s anti-bullying law on the government’s Stop Bullying website or through your state’s department of education. Laws vary by state, but schools are typically required to report, document and investigate bullying within a specified number of days. The law also requires the school to take action to stop the acts of bullying. There may be accommodations for counseling services.

2. Gather a Team

In addition to these official steps, I encourage reaching out to your child’s teacher(s), principal and guidance counselor to have personal conversations about how they plan to support your child. If your child is young and inexperienced with school, this is the time to explain that each of these people are there to help and are always available to speak with them if they have a concern. Surround your child with layers of support from a wide range of school professionals so she/he has the best chance of feeling safe and known at school. For some kids, this may not be their classroom teacher. For others, it may be the librarian or the school nurse or the music teacher. 

If your child is the target of racism and bullying at school, there may be conversations about anti-racism and diversity education. Hopefully these initiatives already exist at the school, but you and/or school leadership may want to address specific programming to support Asian American history, or anti-Asian hate resources. This is of course wonderful, but requires a caveat. I caution that the burden of these efforts should not fall on your child and/or any other students who were the targets of the bullying and racism. It is not their responsibility to educate or reform their aggressors. Any activism and advocacy should be their choice, if they find it empowering or healing. With so many contemporary examples of public advocacy, kids might feel pressured to immediately rise up and be ready to take on a mic. If this is genuinely the case for your child, their efforts should be applauded. But advocacy and empowerment can look differently for everyone. For some, a reading list in the privacy of their bedroom may be just as powerful as a megaphone at a rally. 

3. Empower Your Kids with Words

Along those lines, your child should not feel pressured to have the “right” comeback to a racist remark. A racist or bullying remark is intended to humiliate, intimidate and cut down a person’s self-worth. It is about creating shame in the victim, to poison them from the inside. Instead of trying to find the perfect zinger, I would spend time discussing with your child where the shame truly belongs in that encounter. It belongs with the aggressor, the bully. Not with your child. The classic racist attack, go back to where you came from, is intended to make the target feel unwelcome, foreign, inferior. The response “I was born here, stupid,” might feel like the right response, but does this person care where you were actually born? Of course not. (Plus, some Asian-Americans, like me, were not actually born here but still belong here as much as anyone else.) After securing the child’s physical safety, the first priority in addressing race-based bullying is to protect the child from internalizing shame, which is so toxic and may linger long after other injuries have healed.

If something needs to be said, throw the shame on the aggressor: “Shame on you for being so ignorant. Shame on you for using that racist word. Shame on you.” The bully may not feel ashamed and the response may not prove satisfying, but the critical point is to deflect the shame intended on the target, your child. 

4. Demonstrate the Power of Allyship

Finally, consider cultivating a household where you practice allyship to marginalized groups beyond your family’s identity. Practice allyship to the trans community, to the larger LGBTQIA+ community, the refugee community, the Black and Brown communities, the Muslim community, the disabled community. When you practice allyship and advocacy as a way of life, you are protecting your own family by building community, by helping your kids identify and stand against bullying in every form, and by rejecting the toxic culture of supremacy that trades on shame. 

After you’ve done all this work to protect and help your kid? Recognize this took a toll on you too. Give yourself credit for being a proactive, thoughtful parent. Take a nap. Throw some axes (you know, in one of those places that has insurance for such purposes.) Sniff some flowers. Breathe. 

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Yoojin Grace Wuertz was born in Seoul, South Korea, and immigrated to the United States at age six. She holds a BA in English from Yale University and an MFA in fiction from New York University. EVERYTHING BELONGS TO US is her debut novel, which was selected as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, longlisted for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize, and included on Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction of 2017. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Massachusetts Review, among other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey, with her family. You can find her online at www.gracewuertz.com

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